Bosses should fix toxic workplaces, says the surgeon general.  Here's how.

Bosses should fix toxic workplaces, says the surgeon general. Here’s how.


If you think your workplace is toxic and harming your physical and mental health, you’re not alone.

US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy warned Thursday that abusive or unforgiving workplaces can be harmful to human health. And he laid out a roadmap detailing how employers can change their workplace culture and practices to better protect people’s mental and physical health.

“The link between our work and our health has become even more evident,” Murthy said. “More and more workers are worried about making ends meet, managing chronic stress and struggling to balance the demands of work and personal life.”

It’s not just about mental health: chronic stress can increase the risk of physical illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And when workers’ health declines, it can affect workplace productivity and ingenuity, Murthy said in the report’s introduction.

The Surgeon General’s office – citing the big resignation, “silent resignation” and reported depression or anxiety among American workers – said the recommendations were aimed at seizing the opportunity of the pandemic era to re-examine our way of working. Murthy said the “calculation” triggered by the pandemic should lead employers to transform workplaces into “engines of wellbeing”.

Here’s what you need to know about detecting toxicity and protecting your mental and physical health, and what employers should do.

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How to recognize a toxic workplace

Five qualities can predict whether people think their workplace is toxic, according to the Surgeon General’s advice: The culture is disrespectful, uninclusive, unethical, unforgiving, or abusive.

And if you think your workplace is toxic, you’re usually right, said psychologist Amy Sullivan, director of engagement and wellness at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute. “We know, as people who work in that environment, if he doesn’t feel safe or mentally healthy,” she said. “It’s really a hunch.”

People can usually confirm that you know it when you see it with your co-workers because it’s possible for large groups to complain, said Dennis Stolle, senior director of the American Psychological Association’s office of applied studies. psychology. Stolle worked on APA research that was cited in the Surgeon General’s Guidelines.

There are also physical red flags. Insomnia, anxiety, dry mouth, increased blood pressure, and fatigue can be among the signs that something is wrong. Indications that the nervous system’s fight-or-flight response has been activated — a pit in the stomach, butterflies in the stomach, a racing heart — are important to note, Sullivan said.

People sometimes experience the symptoms most outside of work, when they return home. “They can’t relax, they can’t let go of professional thoughts, they can’t sleep, or they dread getting up and going to work the next day,” Stolle said.

But is it a toxic workplace or just worldly stress? Stolle recommends thinking about when you feel the best and when you feel the worst. If work dominates your “worst” column, that’s at least part of the problem, he says.

Whether a workplace is called truly toxic, many workers suffer from chronic stress regardless – thanks to “heavy workloads, long commutes, unpredictable schedules, limited autonomy, long work hours, multiple jobs, low wages” and various other challenges, the surgeon general said. .

People struggling with negative work environments should recognize that “it’s not them,” Sullivan said. And the more you can separate your emotions from your work, which means your health and well-being aren’t “emotionally tied” to your work, the better.

If you’re feeling stressed at work, experts recommend trying some common and proven strategies, including going for a walk or briefly leaving the workplace; take a break for something you enjoy, like a cup of coffee or tea; and talk to a trusted colleague who may be having similar issues. You can also practice mindful breathing and make lifestyle changes like your diet or exercise. Try different things until you find the self-care practices that work for you, experts said.

Stolle tells employees to follow three steps: take care of themselves, take care of their co-workers and communicate with their bosses. Asking co-workers how they are and talking about stressors helps create a culture where people care about each other. And telling employers both what’s already working and what you need can start a productive dialogue, he said.

These strategies could improve your well-being in and out of the workplace, but the responsibility for fixing the work culture lies with the employer, not the employees, experts have said. Quick fixes, such as stress management programs or workplace yoga, will not solve a national problem.

“Wellness programs can often give the impression that we are blaming the worker – when it is the workplace and the way work is organized today that is actually the source of the problem,” said said Erin L. Kelly, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sloan School of Management, which studies labor and employment. “We want to see how we can change the workplace, not just focus on changing the worker by encouraging exercise or meditation.”

What should employers do?

The surgeon general recommends five ‘essentials’ for workplaces to ensure employee mental health and well-being: protection from harm, connection and community, work-life harmony, importance at work and opportunity to growth.

The goals match some of the top reasons American workers quit their jobs: A Pew Research Center survey of people who quit in 2021 found they reported low pay, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and a sense of disrespect at work as the top three issues. , reported by more than half of those who quit.

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The Surgeon General’s Guidelines set out a framework for organizations to achieve these five “essentials”.

Among the recommendations for employers are increasing access to paid leave and providing workers with a “living wage”, which the guidelines did not define, although they noted that nearly one-third of American workers earn less than $15 an hour. They should also provide training and mentoring, promote inclusion and equity, and give workers more autonomy over “how, when and where work is done”.

Employers should view these changes as an ongoing culture shift, not simple steps that can be ticked and forgotten, Stolle said.

“We need employers to use [their] power and action,” he said. “If we don’t have that, then change won’t come.”

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